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Ecosystems Of Philanthropy

Salzburg Global and Hivos co-convene program to examine values for money

Diasmer Bloe and Wolfgang Irber examine the finished illustration of the Ecosystem of Philanthropy

Ecosystems are complex. They incorporate living organisms like plants, nonliving components such as water, and the complex interactions between these different elements which have varying impacts upon each other. Removal or expansion of one part of an ecosystem can have deep impacts on others; small tweaks or introductions of new elements can have long-term, unexpected (and possibly unwanted) consequences. If we were to imagine the “ecosystem” of philanthropy for social change – also arguably a complex system – what would we see? A simple flow chart? A forest? An octopus?! (Yes, an octopus – read on…)

In March 2014, Salzburg Global Seminar and Hivos convened 45 experts from philanthropy, finance, international policy, research, and social activism to examine urgent questions related to channeling more money toward social transformation, and to do so in ways that maximize the positive impact of those monies.

The Salzburg Global Fellows were asked to expand their (eco)systems thinking beyond philanthropic funding and identify core elements of a healthier and more balanced ecosystem that could enable and support social transformation. Just as the participants came from many different backgrounds from across the philanthropic spectrum, so too were the ecosystem models distinct and varied.

One could see the system of philanthropy or social change in the form of a flow chart, with funds flowing into different mechanisms that align and work together to the same goal. But given the complexity of ecosystems – and that of philanthropy for social change – some considered this overly simplistic.

Some of the participants were inspired to envision philanthropy for social change as an octopus with the potential to be both beautiful and beastly, with the tentacles representing the multiple forms of funding available to propel social change forward: foundations, market-based philanthropy, impact investing, government aid, etc.

Currently, each “tentacle” of funding acts relatively independently of the others; they may be unaware of what the others are doing or even fighting each other, pulling in different directions. An octopus has the ability to both adapt to and obscure its surroundings. Highly intelligent and well-meaning at first sight, it can move unexpectedly and act ruthlessly. If the octopus’ tentacles continue to pull in different directions, the whole animal (representative of the progress of social change) will remain confused and ineffectual. But, if the values of deep social transformation can be absorbed into its central intelligence system, there is a chance that the octopus can “tame” its tentacles, apply its considerable skills for good, and advance social change. Only when the octopus’ tentacles work together in concert can the beautiful beast move forward and, in turn, positively impact its surroundings.

Admittedly, the octopus in itself is not an ecosystem; it remains a small creature in the vast ocean of global finance, but it is able to have more effect on its surroundings than its size would otherwise suggest – an analogy many in Salzburg felt apt for philanthropy for social change.

One could build a more expansive vision of the ecosystem of philanthropy by imagining one of the most complex natural ecosystems: a forest. Forests have a diversity of vegetation: towering trees – long-term programs that run for decades and are not cut down or expected to offer a “return on investment” before reaching maturation; mid-canopy trees that do not have as long life spans but are still given time to grow before being harvested, providing returns on investment; and young seedlings that have only just been planted or sprung from the fruits of other efforts.

The diversity of trees (programs) is vital for social change, and so these programs of varying growth periods are also of varying “species”: single-issues programs that grow quite independently of the surrounding plants; wide-ranging programs with branches that help prop up other organizations, providing fruit that sprout other trees and offering leafy nourishment (advice and experience) to saplings (but there is a risk they grow too large and absorb the funds or obscure the work of their smaller counterparts); and vines that cling to larger programs. There are the “evergreen” programs that run continually, and those that lie dormant before springing back into action at the appropriate time.

All these trees need nourishment – and here water is money. Without the rain (money), programs can shrivel and die; but an unexpected deluge can have a negative impact, with programs unable to respond quickly enough to make best use of the funds and at risk of being drowned out. Some plants need more water than others, some conserve and store water better than others, and some trees transpire moisture (money) back into the atmosphere to be recycled and rained down again elsewhere (i.e. impact investing). As in a real forest, not all of these trees will survive. In addition to well-funded “healthy” programs, the forest is also home to deadwood – programs that have been part-funded but abandoned or unsuccessful – and quick growing trees that are expected to produce a speedy return before they’ve had chance to properly leaf.

After all, this forest of programs has been planted by different people, at different times, and for different purposes. Some programs will be planted by small NGOs and watered by teams of crowdfunders; some will be planted by large foundations that regularly “rain money” but leave the arboriculture to the NGOs; some are planted with the expectation of producing fruit that will sprout other programs. Some programs will prove to be “invasive species” (often planted by well-meaning but misdirected or mistrusted donors), planted in areas that do not want or need these programs, possibly displacing community-appropriate programs or other natural inhabitants. Despite these analogies, questions still abound. For the octopus, how should the values of social transformation be fed into it and by whom? If the multiple tentacles cannot be “tamed,” can we afford to cut one off and allow something else to grow in its place? In the philanthropy forest, if money is rain, where did the water come from in the first place? How do we introduce more money into the system in a healthy, sustainable manner? And how can we be sure that the programs we plant and nourish are contributing to social transformation and not just superficial, short-term change? How do we measure the value we have as philanthropists? 

The Salzburg Global–Hivos program was intended to extend current thinking and catalyze new thinking about the role of philanthropy in supporting transformation, and the role of money in particular.

Michael Edwards, in his think piece Beauty and the Beast: Can Money Ever Foster Social Transformation? (provided as the starting point for discussions at the session) contends that the current funding “system” for social transformation is out of balance: too much emphasis is placed on, and too many resources channeled to, a few select approaches while others – arguably those that are more “democratic” in nature, and in which “success” is less tied to financial/market outcomes – are increasingly eschewed.

Identifying the core elements of a healthy system may help us to increase the ability of philanthropy, and money in particular, to support social transformation, and help the diverse – and sometimes divisive – actors and approaches to understand how they can work together more effectively towards shared goals.

A longer version of this article was first published in the September 2014 edition of Alliance magazine:


Salzburg Global Fellows are eligible for a 20% discount on subscriptions to Alliance. Email for details.

25.06.2015 Category: 2015 Features, SUSTAINABILITY, PHILANTHROPY
Louise Hallman and Nancy Smith